Teaching Philosophy

It's been interesting to look back at my past philosophies, those written before anyone had heard of COVID–19. My first thought is to consider that one factor having led to significant changes in my teaching, but thinking about it more, I realize I've been on this trajectory for many years. With every new experience (life and learning), I find new ways to make my teaching more student-centric. It's not as easy a label to claim as some may think, but I believe I'm making good progress with it.

During my six years as the Associate Director of Xavier's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development, I spent a lot of time talking about one of my favorite professors from college. Harry Cargas was an internationally renowned scholar on the Christian response to the Holocaust. He was the author of over a dozen books. He was friends with Elie Wiesel and Kurt Vonnegut. And he taught classes that weren't just about literature - they were about morality, about the Holocaust, about utopia, about existential angst. I took so many classes with Harry as an undergraduate that my advisor had to tell me that the school didn't offer a minor in Harry Cargas Studies. I've been talking about Harry so much recently because I came to realize that he was the exact opposite kind of teacher I want to be. All of Harry's classes were the same, neat and tidy: they lasted only eight weeks, meeting once a week for four hours. For each class, you would read the assigned novel, and during the four hours of class, you would listen to Harry talk about that novel. After the last class, you would turn in an eight-to-ten-page essay analyzing one of the novels. The grade you got on that paper was the grade you got for the class.

I feel bad, always, talking about Harry because when I bring him up it's as an example of what not to do as a college professor. Harry did not provide detailed and transparent assignments to help us understand his expectations; Harry did not use repeated low-stakes assessments to help us practice our learning; Harry did not incorporate active learning activities into every class session; Harry did not explain to us the alignment between the course learning outcomes, instructional strategies, and assessment methods. These things that Harry didn't do are some of the ways I've tried over the past sixteen years to help my students learn.

I teach a variety of classes at Xavier, classes that not only have vastly different content, but also vastly different objectives. What students are expected to learn from a first-year composition class is different from what they are expected to learn from our College Experience course which is different from what they are expected to learn in American literature classes which is different from what they are expected to learn in the Grammar class. This is, perhaps, not all that unique, but I say it here to stress that despite the topic (even discipline) of the class, every class I teach challenges students to grow as individuals. Learning is change: the more you learn, the more you change. Successful learning causes permanent change. It changes the way we think and the way we behave.

Thinking is the ultimate goal of any course I teach. I'm not particularly interested in a student's ability to recall specific facts in response to specific questions. I want them to be able to think deeply about the things they read, the things they see, the things they experience. I want them to feel confident trying to answer big, unanswerable questions. I want them to be able to explain their thinking through speech and through writing, in a way that makes that thinking understandable to most anyone. I want them to think deeply about their own thought processes, to reflect upon their learning and their growth, so that they can consider not just what they think but how they think. These are, I realize, lofty goals, but this is the point of a liberal arts education: not rote knowledge, but insight and creativity.

We practice these things through lots of activity in my classes. By embracing inverted pedagogyi, through which I present material to the students outside of class, I've been able to turn my actual class meetings into spaces where the students work through different problems, challenges, and questions together. This kind of engagement shows the students to embrace difference and to not fear error, as it shows them repeatedly that there is rarely ever one right way to answer a question or solve a problem. Whenever it is available, I request the Active Learning Classroom on the fifth floor of the Library because it best accommodates the movement we will need for small and large group work and for sharing what the groups have discovered. With my online classes, even the asynchronous classes, I try to incorporate some activities each week that challenge the students to work together on research or problem-solving. This all brings with it the added benefit of creating a greater sense of community within my classes, again even the asynchronous ones.

This can present challenges. During the first day of classes, I present two ideas to the students. First, that my approach to teaching can often seem messy. It's difficult to keep strict time constraints on active learning - some activities go so well that they need more time because who wants to stop students from engaging with the material; other activities don't go so well and need to be pushed aside. Second, that while we may disagree with one another, our classroom space must be a place that embraces difference, be it in thought, experience, or identity. Each of us is the result of a unique set of factors, which affects who we are and how we think, and no one should be criticized for who they are and how they think.

These approaches, to be honest, make grading and assessing learning difficult. As noted above, practice is key, so every class involves a great deal of formative assessment, opportunities to practice, to succeed and to fail, and opportunities to receive feedback. Also embracing the idea of inclusionii, my summative assessments have become more open, meaning that students increasingly have more choices in how they complete such projects. Instead of simply assignment a research paper, I'll give the students the choice between a number of different research projects, each accomplishing the same goals but in different ways. Again, this may suggest a sense of the chaotic, with different kinds of projects, but diversity, especially a diversity that allows students to focus on what's most important, is not a bad thing.

I've also begun recently to experiment with the idea of ungradingiii, through which I do not assign grades for any work the students complete for the class, but instead give them timely and thorough feedback and have them do a significant amount of reflective writing, so they can improve going forward. This too may seem messy - it often confuses the students during the first week of classes, given how acclimated they are to getting grades for everything they do. Yet, they generally find, within a few weeks that the stress of all those grades has been lifted, and they stop doing work simply to get an A and try instead to do the best they can do.

I never felt much stress from Harry's classes. There was a simplicity to them that made sense to me at the time. But I came into Harry's classes with a lot already going for me. My identity made it easy for me to understand what was expected of me in those classes. I wonder sometimes how Harry would respond to my approach to teaching, considering how different it is to how he taught. I think he would appreciate it, though, had he had the chance to learn about these methods as I have.

i For more information about inverted pedagogy and flipped teaching, see the following:
Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class. Washington: ISTE.
Gross, D., Pietri, E. S., Anderson, G., Moyano-Camihort, K., & Graham, M. J. (2015). Increased Preclass Preparation Underlies Student Outcome. Improvement in the Flipped Classroom. CBE - Life Sciences Education, 14, 1-8.
Lage, J. M., Platt, J. G., & Treglia, M. (2000). Inverting the Classroom: A Gateway to Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment. The Journal of Economic Education, 31(1), 30-43.

ii For more information about inclusive teaching, see the following:
Dallalfar, A., Kingston-Mann, E., & Sieber, T. (2011). Transforming classroom culture: Inclusive pedagogical practices. New York: Palgrave.
Gurin, P., Dey, E. L., Hurtado, S. & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review 72 (3): 330-66.
Roksa, J., Kilgo, C.A., Trolian, T.L., Pascarella, E.T., Blaich, C. & Wise, K.S. (2017) Engaging with diversity: How positive and negative diversity interactions influence students' cognitive outcomes. The Journal of Higher Education.

iii For more information about ungrading, see the following:
Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership 69 (3): 28-33.
Stommel, J. (2017, October 26). Why I Don't Grade. Jesse Stommel. https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/
Supiano, B. (2019, October 27). Forget Grades and Turnitin. Start Trusting Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/forget-grades-and-turnitin-start-trusting-students/

Online Teaching Philosophy

I wrote this document as an assignment for the UNCF Co-Curricular Engagement/Curricular Enhancement mini-grant minigrant I was awarded in 2019. As a part of the grant, I took a six-week online course about incorporating career readiness outcomes into my classes. This teaching philosophy was specifically written to focus on my approach to online teaching, although I do not now see a significant difference between how I approach the different teaching modalities.

I taught my first online class, Technical Writing, when I was still a graduate student in 2004. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never taken an online class myself, and for my in-person graduate classes, my professors did not even post their syllabi to WebCT, the school's LMS. I was given someone else's course shell and set loose. If I still had access to that WebCT course, I'm sure I would be horrified at both the appearance and the pedagogy of the course. Over the past 18 years, my understanding of and appreciate for online learning has fortunately evolved, in part, I think, because I went many years without teaching online. This is my fifteenth year at Xavier University of Louisiana, and I only taught my first intentionally online course in Spring 2022. As a result of this long pause, I was able to develop my own unique approach to teaching in the classroom, before I, like so many others, had to quickly adapt that approach to an online modality during the COVID lockdown in 2020. I doubt the classes I taught online during Spring 2020 were much better than that class I taught online in 2004.

From 2015 through 2021, I was the Associate Director for Programming at Xavier's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development. Leading up to and throughout the 2020 lockdown, I helped plan and co-lead numerous workshops and tutorials about teaching online, and while many faculty simply wanted to know how to easily convert what they normally did in the classroom to that online modality, I found myself often repeating the need to think differently about online learning, especially online learning complicated by stressful external factors. Many of the trappings of traditional college learning — adherence to strict deadlines, maintaining consistent attendance, physically displaying attentiveness — stopped mattering to me because I saw that none of them demonstrate actual learning; none of them prove that a student is learning what they need to learn through my classes.

My philosophy of online teaching is that I want the students to be able to show me and themselves that they have improved whatever skills and knowledge the class claims to teach in inclusive and authentic ways. Teaching online gives me and the students greater flexibility in how they can demonstrate their learning. It allows me to give the students more options. For example, when discussing an assigned reading — and one of the things I have not changed about my teaching is that I still assign always what I consider "difficult" texts — one student may best be able to demonstrate that they have comprehended the author's meaning by writing a formal one-page precis of the reading, while another student may best do so by talking through the reading for several minutes in a video, while another student may best do so by researching and sharing various real-world examples of the author's meaning. All of these are valid demonstrations of comprehension, all accomplished without the stress of a traditional "reading quiz," which is how I was trained to assess reading comprehension as a graduate student. Not only is this flexibility of learning less stressful, but it's also more inclusive, in that it empowers students to embrace their differences, and it's more authentic, in that it allows them to practice the kind of thing they will likely need to do after they leave the university. Their employers will never give them a multiple-choice quiz, but they will expect them to speak, write, or otherwise share their opinions.

Another way I try to embrace and demonstrate inclusivity and authenticity in my online classes is by taking full advantage of the design options in our LMS (now Brightspace). None of my classes (whether in-person or online) look alike. Every class has a different (and intentional) organization and a different (and intentional) appearance. This is to show the students my own commitment to the class and to make it as accessible and engaging as possible. According to my students, my classes look great (although I'm still figuring out better ways to structure them). If I ask my students to do more than the bare minimum for my classes (which I always do), why should I be a be allowed to do only the bare minimum when setting up my classes?

I believe these areas — inclusivity and authenticity — are not just buzzwords but essential elements to any form of teaching; however, they are perhaps more essential to teaching at an HBCU, a school created to welcome students who were (and still are) excluded from much of academia, a school created to allow students to learn as they are, not as how someone else thinks they should be. So many of these students have either been pushed aside or told to act like someone else. They deserve so much better. I hope that my classes offer them something better. We claim that we are creating the leaders of tomorrow; if so, then we need to demonstrate to them how to be such leaders.

Mentoring Philosophy

As I'm currently working through the P-MAX (Preparing Mentors at Xavier) Online program offered through Xavier's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development, I am in the process of developing a more nuanced mentoring philosophy, which I will post here when complete.

The content on this page was last modified on Tue 21 Feb 2023.